USDA deregulates GE non-browning apples

By Sarah Gonzalez

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WASHINGTON, Feb. 13, 2015 -- USDA today announced its approval of two varieties of apples genetically engineered to resist browning by Canada-based Okanagan Specialty Fruits.

USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) deregulated Okanagan's Arctic Granny and Arctic Golden apples, which the company submitted for review in May 2010. The varieties are the first GE apples to receive USDA's approval.

Neal Carter, president of Okanagan said the commercial approval “is the biggest milestone yet for us.”

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The company's next focus is to start planting. “As more trees are planted and they come into commercial production, there will be a slow, but steady market introduction,” Carter said in a statement, estimating Arctic apples will first be available in late 2016 in small quantities. It will be years before the product is widely distributed, he said.

The GE apples, although opposed by some consumers and environmentalists, are one of just a few GE products approved by USDA that are designed to directly benefit consumers.

Arctic Apples use gene silencing to suppress the fruit's expression of an enzyme involved in browning when the fruit is bruised, bitten or cut. The decreased enzyme production results in an apple that won't brown due to oxidation. Okanagan says the technology provides opportunity for fewer wasted apples and could lead to increased apple consumption.

In its deregulation, APHIS determined the apple varieties are “unlikely to pose a plant pest risk to agricultural crops or other plants in the United States” and found that “deregulation is not likely to have a significant impact on the human environment.”

It's unclear how widely the apples will be used commercially. In 2013, both Gerber and McDonald's indicated in letters to Friends of the Earth that they do not plan to use the GE varieties.

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Over the course of USDA's consideration, activists have said they do not trust the technology used to develop the apple. Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter said browning is an important indicator to consumers in determining apple freshness.

“This technology uses RNA (ribonucleic acid) to silence a target gene, but mounting evidence has shown that meddling with the genes could have unintended effects within the plant and also on organisms that eat the plant,” she said.

However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) offered support for deregulation, noting that the new apple “might demonstrate to consumers how, in time, other new products could provide even more impressive benefits, including to improve health.”

“Few fruits have undergone more genetic selection, hybridization, and other tinkering over the centuries than the apple. To create the new Arctic apple, scientists have tinkered a step further and spliced in some extra of the apple's own genetic material, which causes it to turn brown less quickly when its interior is exposed to the air. USDA's decision to deregulate the product means that the agency is convinced it presents no harm to the environment,” said CSPI Biotechnology Director Greg Jaffe in a statement.

Unlike most of the commercially approved genetically engineered crops, which provide benefits primarily to farmers, this product provides a modest benefit to consumers. It might make sense to use such a product for pre-sliced apple slices or in fruit salad or salad bars.”

 

The last public comment period on the apples' plant-pest risk assessment and draft environmental assessment closed in January 2014. In the thousands of comments submitted to USDA, several questioned the new apples' impact on domestic commerce as well as the potential for the Arctic apples to cross-pollinate with fruit from organic or conventional orchards.

Okanagan maintains that even if Arctic pollen did fertilize a conventional or organic bloom, the resulting fruit's skin or flesh would not be affected.

APHIS concluded that the approval of the non-browning apple “is not expected to adversely impact domestic commerce” and could potentially “enhance US competitiveness in global markets”.

Okanagan also submitted a voluntary petition for review at the Food and Drug Administration. In Canada, the apples are being reviewed by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Health Canada, who are responsible for the regulation of biotechnology foods.

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